In part 3 of this 4-part interview, Center for School Transformation CAO & Professor Megan Tschannen-Moran talks about compassionate communication with teachers and how to meet their needs with empathy.

Watch the interview video on compassionate communication above, or read the interview transcript below.

Compassionate communication: Are you correcting or connecting?

– Welcome to another PL Together Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video coaching platform that helps you streamline feedback to teachers. Today, we’re talking with Megan Tschannen-Moran. She’s a professor at William and Mary, and also has experience as a founding principal of an elementary school in Chicago. Megan, thanks so much for joining us.

– So glad to be here, thanks Adam.

– Well, I want to talk a little bit more. You’ve written books about coaching and coaching models, and I know one of the things that you write about is this idea of compassionate communication. So maybe let’s start. I think it was on maybe a poster or a blog post that you had, it was the game of who’s right verse the realm of possibilities. So what does compassion communication, but what does that phrase mean and how should I be internalizing that to kind of changing my behavior?

– Well, our model of empathy in our coaching model really is grounded in the work of Marshall Rosenberg and the process that he called non-violent communication. And there was a history how he came to call it that. But yeah, it’s a process that I have come to value a great deal in my own personal life and sharing it with others. And I think it has proven to be a really powerful part of our coaching model. So extending empathy, especially when we’re inviting people to tippy toe into unknown territory, which is what learning is involved, and sometimes that goes great and sometimes it’s a little scary and sometimes it doesn’t go so great. And so we as coaches can come alongside of the people we’re coaching through all those ups and downs, through all of us, but if we’re not attuned to how people are feeling about it, and then the underlying needs that are attached to those feelings, then we’re really missing a big part of the coaching project. So to come back to your question about playing the game of who’s right, that goes back to an insight from Marshall Rosenberg and he said, we all know how to play the game of who’s right, it’s the game where everybody loses. And so that’s when we get into a space of judging other people this is right, this is wrong, this was inappropriate, you are rude. She’s crazy, whatever. If we get into that kind of space, we’re in a space of disconnection from the other person. And very likely as we engage with them with the kind of thinking that they’re somehow wrong or bad or crazy or sick for the strategies that they’re implementing that we’re not enjoying. We put them into a space of defensiveness. So job one just got, let me defend my honor. And I’m not that interested now in a joint project of coming together with you in connection to open up the realm of possibility, figuring out what’s a win-win situation look like if we’re kind of at loggerheads with each other, or how can we move our collective work of the school forward? So what we want to do is to create a space where we’re in connection. So the sort of first phase of the empathy process is if we are engaging with somebody that we’re aware has stimulated some emotions and feelings for us, we have a choice to either connect or correct. And if we’re correct, we’re moving into that game of who’s right. But if we choose to connect, we’re going to choose to follow the path of empathy, figuring out what’s going on with them. As coaches, what we say, the self-empathy is something we’re gonna do on our own time, that’s private. But if we’re feeling really annoyed with this person, if we can’t get past that, we’re probably not gonna be an effective coach for them. So we need to figure out what’s going on. Or as I mentioned, if we see a teacher in observation and things that just make us cringe going on, we need to have some self-empathy. Like that was really painful to watch that. And my heart’s going out to these students who are not being well-served perhaps or whatever it is, but in coaching, our job is really just to be attentive to what’s going on with the person we’re coaching. So we need to deal with that on our own time, and then show up to our coaching, ready to really be empathic to try to figure out what are the feelings that are going on with this person? What are the underlying needs that are provoking those emotions, those feelings, and how can we move forward? So my husband, I collaborated with my husband in writing our evocative coaching book because he was trained as a business and life coach. And when we started having coaches in schools like wow, there’s this whole body of knowledge of professional business and life coaches. And we should use it, but we didn’t seem like we were tapping into that body of knowledge at all. We’ve just like, started from scratch and just missed a lot of the wisdom is there. But when he was starting, he was involved in his coach training. One of the principles of coaching was people are doing the best they can. And my response was, no they’re not, like people don’t just get a pass, like that’s not right. You gotta do better, but as we work together in this model, and we had some discussions about this, I really came to the belief that people really are doing the best they can, that if the strategies that they are engaged in to get their needs met are so inadequate and so ineffective. Why would anybody do that? So if I desperately want help and support of my colleagues, but the only way I know how to ask is to say you idiot, what’s wrong with you? Then I’ve diminished to almost zero, the likelihood that I’m gonna get that kind of help and support that I desperately need. So Marshall Rosenberg called that a tragic expression of an unmet need, when we’re communicating in ways that are just really, really ineffective, but we can honor the underlying need because that’s something we all share, those are universal. So if I can get to there, then I can have empathy even for somebody whose behavior I’m really not enjoying.

– Well, there was a good reminder there to assume the best. So I can imagine coaches hearing this being reminded of this, agreeing with you, but thinking, but that’s hard to do. Do you have any tools that can help me think about the language or think about the why behind some of the things that I’m hearing or the emotions. And so I think there’s a related tool that I want to ask you to tell us about, which is your compassionate communication guide. So what is that and how might it be helpful for the coaches thinking good idea, but help me as with some tactical support get better at this.

– And so it’s a four-page brochure that I designed. It’s my depiction from my learning of this nonviolent communication or compassionate communication process, tipping my hat to Marshall Rosenberg. But so the first page is just the sort of the roadmap to either choosing the game of who’s right, that pathway of correct, versus the pathway that leads to the opening the realm of possibility through exploring feelings and needs. And on the inside, there are lists on one page of feeling words and there’s two columns. One is the kinds of feelings that we might have when our needs are not being met. So these are more uncomfortable feelings. And then the second column is feelings when our needs are met. And so both go back to the tie of our needs. So the underlying premise of this model is that all behavior is motivated by underlying needs. And so we really honor whatever feelings are coming up because they get our attention, they get us to pay attention to the realm of needs. So I think of that as like the little light on your dashboard of you’re sort of driving around along daydreaming or whatever, and suddenly it goes ding and you go, oh my gosh, I’m almost out of gas. And I better cook up a strategy to get some gas into my car, or I’m not gonna get to my destination. So if I suddenly realized I got a knot in my stomach or my face is turning red or my fists are clenched, we can just be glad for that. Even though it’s an uncomfortable feeling, but it’s like wow, something’s going on in the realm of needs. And so our needs are depicted not as Maslow’s hierarchy, which is popular, but doesn’t have a lot of research support behind it. And instead, we call it the wheel of needs, which is arranged around five continuums that we see as being in creative tension with each other. So we never meet all of our needs simultaneously, but we want to have a rhythm between them, for example, work and rest. We don’t work and rest at the same time, but if we have a good rhythm between the two of them, we’re not trying to balance, it’s just I spent this many minutes working and this many resting, but then we have a rhythm that contributes to vitality. So we also have safety and challenge. So Maslow says a lot of schemes about we need safety. Yes, we do, but all safety all the time is just boring. We also need some challenge. We need to sort of walk a little bit on the wild side, try out some new things, get some learning and growth.

– Well, if the coaches out there are interested in the challenge of building some more skills and capacity in this area and are interested in that resource you just were mentioning, they can head to, it’s available on your website. So having looked at it, it’s easy to access and colorful and it’s definitely worth checking out. Megan, we need to take a quick break and we’ll continue the conversation shortly. If you’re wondering what we’re going to talk about next, or what we’ve talked about before this, or who else I’ve talked to, head to for the rest of this conversation, as well as many more. Megan, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thanks so much, Adam.

For more interviews with education leaders about compassionate communication and other insights, check out all of our PLtogether Lounge Talks